A radio call from First Student to one of its bus drivers Monday afternoon returned only silence. The absence of driver John Kalina, 63, is being felt by many — including family, current and former co-workers, and the students Kalina treated as his own children.
Kalina died Sunday from health complications after eight days in the hospital.
The bus company radio announcement Monday was a last call for him in his honor, made by former boss and friend Frank Underwood — who was First Student's Jefferson City location manager before he came to Jefferson City Public Schools and later became the school district's director of facilities and transportation.
JCPS contracts its bus services with First Student, and Kalina's bus No. 43 took students to and from North Elementary School in Holts Summit.
Kalina was the 12th-most senior person working at First Student, according to a seniority list on a bulletin board inside the company's office — with his start date being March 3, 2011.
"Base, 43 has failed to respond because Mr. Kalina has fallen in the line of duty," Underwood broadcast Monday afternoon to the drivers on their after-school routes.
Each of the buses that had left First Student's lot at Norman Drive had a strip of black tape over the front engine grille, and No. 43 also had a black ribbon on the front.
Kalina's family was at the top of the hill on Norman Drive, at the intersection with Industrial Drive, watching and waving at each bus as it went by — a memorial plant, a camcorder pointed down the hill and a radio tuned in to First Student's dispatch were all on the roof of one of their cars parked alongside.
Family members might have some differing memories of what Kalina thought of the job when he first started, but everyone agreed the students John drove eventually became as much a part of his family as his own kin.
"He loved his kids. I met 37 of his kids in the show choir the other day. We all did. They came and sang for him in the hospital," said Jacque Tomlin, one of his daughters, inside First Student's office as they waited for the radio call after the last bus drove away.
Tomlin; First Student's current location manager Brandon Swyers; Underwood; and Kalina's ex-wife, Michelle Johnson, all described that dozens of students and graduates came to see Kalina at the hospital last Friday.
In addition to the 50 or so students Kalina typically drove each day on his North Elementary route, Kalina was the sole driver for the high school's show choir and was a requested driver for high school bands, Swyers said.
Kalina drove for cheerleaders, too, Johnson added.
Swyers said Kalina didn't want his relationship with the students he drove to be just a business one.
"It was his life. The kids on the bus were his kids," Swyers said, noting Kalina would go watch students perform on his own time, even when he wasn't the one driving them there.
Underwood said on the radio Kalina was an "honorary member" of Jefferson City High School's show choir, adding that the district is working on having a room available at the high school next month for a memorial service for Kalina.
"He got to know his students," Underwood said later. " He modeled the behavior I want out of all bus drivers."
Kalina was born in Kentucky but also lived in the state of California, Johnson said, adding he had previously been a truck driver.
"We're going to miss John. He was a great guy, spoke well of everybody, never had anything bad to say," Underwood said on the radio.
" John, you are gone, but you will never be forgotten."